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Dr. Willy Schwenzfeier: the only sailor to compete in all 24 Race Weeks

willie1 sby Bill Wagner

When Willy Schwenzfeier first competed in Sperry Charleston Race Week, there were about 15 boats entered and nightly awards parties were held at Carolina Yacht Club.

It was 1996 and Schwenzfeier, as one of the original members of the Charleston Ocean Racing Association (CORA), played a role in establishing the fledgling regatta.

Schwenzfeier has watched the event grow and develop significantly since then and has been a loyal supporter throughout. The longtime Charleston resident has competed in all 24 editions of Sperry Charleston Race Week, the only boat owner to do so.

“I remember the very first year there was this new sport-boat called a Melges 24 and it raced in PHRF and the skipper had to put a bow pulpit on it,” Schwenzfeier said with a laugh.

Schwenzfeier has always campaigned a J/35 named Arrow and has done quite well in Sperry Charleston Race Week over the years, capturing class honors numerous times and finishing on the podium more often than he can count. Perhaps his most notable victory came onshore.

“Beneteau sponsored Charleston Race Week during the early years and held a raffle for a five-day, four-night trip to Nautic Paris Boat Show,” Schwenzfeier said. “My wife bought the winning ticket and we got to go to Paris for a great vacation courtesy of Beneteau.”

Dr. William Schwenzfeier originally came to Charleston in 1977 while serving as an ear, nose and throat specialist for the United States Navy. He was stationed at the Navy Regional Medical Center in the Holy City and enjoyed living here so much he stayed. Schwenzfeier ran a thriving practice known as Charleston ENT & Allergy up until his retirement six months ago. He also served as chairman of the ENT Department at Roper/St. Francis Hospitals.

Schwenzfeier and his wife Caroline, who he met while attending college in Baltimore, live on James Island and berth their boat at Harborage on the Ashley River.

Schwenzfeier played basketball at Johns Hopkins University while earning a degree in biology then attended medical school at the University of Florida. He bought the first J/35 in 1984 from renowned racer Charlie Scott, who owns a marina on Whitehall Creek in Annapolis.

“I sailed the boat all the way from Annapolis to Charleston. It was an interesting trip,” Schwenzfeier said.

Arrow actively participated in various offshore events organized by CORA and other organizations over the years. “We used to race up and down the coast all the time, but I don’t do overnights anymore,” Schwenzfeier said.

willie2 sSchwenzfeier has been blessed with a loyal and dedicated crew with five members having raced aboard the boat for 25 years or more. Topping the list is Jules Ivester, who is considered the co-skipper.

“The joke is that it’s both of our boat, but I pay all the bills,” Schwenzfeier said with a chuckle.

Ivester is an anesthesiologist and initially met Schwenzfeier in an operating room during a surgery. They hit it off over their mutual love of sailing and have been racing together since 1985.

Ivester grew up in Charleston and has been sailing since the age of 12, enjoying considerable success in the Laser class. Schwenzfeier started sailing at the age of six and was once the Ohio national champion in Interlake class.

Schwenzfeier names the other longtime sailors aboard Arrow along with their crew position and occupation. There’s Tom Weir (bowman and dentist), Sam Furr (starboard trimmer, architect), Cale Martin (mast, head of physics at Porter), Katherine Purcell (main, English teacher).

“I have the best crew a skipper could possibly want,” Schwenzfeier said. “They’re all great people and outstanding sailors. We get along great and have been sailing the boat so long that very little needs to be said when doing maneuvers.”

Schwenzfeier is both impressed and amazed that Charleston Race Week has grown into one of the largest regattas in the world, attracting almost 260 boats in 18 classes this year. He applauds event director Randy Draftz for his leadership in transforming the event into a civic treasure.

willie3 s“Randy has done a phenomenal job of shepherding this regatta. I can’t imagine anyone doing this any better than Randy,” he said. “What I love most about Sperry Charleston Race Week is that it has the right temperament. People come here to have fun and enjoy sailboat racing in its purest form. There is a great vibe about the regatta and everyone gets along great.”

Arrow may be a 34-year-old boat, but it still performs extremely well, winning the last two races en route to a runner-up finish in ORC B class last year. Schwenzfeier is looking forward to the 25th anniversary of Sperry Charleston Race Week and plans on competing here for the foreseeable future.

“I’m 74 years old, but I don’t know it,” said Schwenzfeier, who kindly donates his 25-foot Bertram for use as a race committee asset.

“Willy Schwenzfeier is what Sperry Charleston Race Week is all about – just a real gentleman and a true Corinthian sailor,” said Draftz. “Willy has always been a tremendous supporter of this event and a great resource for information. We’re always looking for feedback from participants and he is very helpful in that regard.”